The Back Row Manifesto’s Incredibly Personal, Completely Subjective List of the Best Films of The Decade (2000-2009) will be unveiled over the course of the month of December. Think of it as a sort of misguided advent calendar without the little chocolate surprises. Either way, thanks for reading and please check back every day over the next few weeks for the full list. The introduction to the list can be found here.
23./ 22./ 21. Quiet City by Aaron Katz /Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski/ Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
One of the most important developments in American independent cinema during this decade was the rise of new media tools, inexpensive cameras, personal editing software and the construction of a community of low-budget filmmakers who operated within the common constraints of unlimited creative possibility and severely limited access to money. This community of artists came to be known as, and it hurts to type this but here it goes anyway, “mumblecore”, a name that went from a trendy moniker to a pejorative insult in the batting of an eyelash. The desire to find a story, to collectively lump together a wide variety of artists into a movement, became one of the dominant themes of the decade’s later years, but as I wrote back in August of 2007, all of the label making, vitriol and self-righteousness that accompanied the discussion of this so-called movement truly missed the boat:
“If you need to know one thing, know this; If, on any given night in America, there is room on the couch, if someone needs a camera operator or an actor, if a script needs reviewing or a computer crashes and footage needs to be edited, I know that all of these artists would be there to help one another out. In the end, the auteur theory lives on in a collaborative network of very talented people, but each is his or her own creative talent, instantly recognizable. My hope is that audiences give them all the chance to prove it.”
I’m not sure that ever happened. While the films themselves may have reached a limited group of interested viewers, the talented people involved continue to make waves, increasingly in more mainstream projects (Greta Gerwig, Mark Duplass, etc). Can we look back upon that moment in 2005 as the start of something lasting or was it a fleeting thing, beautifully doomed like any movement built by young, idealistic artists? The one thing I do know is this; for all of the fonts splattered across the blogosphere about video cameras and handheld nausea and sloppy production and boring, apolitical characters and improvisation and on and on, there were three films that one might categorize as being a part of this community of movies that will most certainly stand the test of time for me; Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, a beautiful document of my neighborhood (Park Slope, Brooklyn) that utilizes video and the tenants of low-budget, personal filmmaking to tell a lovely, romantic story in a deeply moving way, Andrew Bujalski’s black and white and wonderful Mutual Appreciation, which captures the feeling and texture of trying to live an honest, creative life in George W Bush’s America better than any other movie I can think of, and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, shot on film over the course of many years and the complete opposite pole from Katz’s film, a dark, painful story of a stuttering, misunderstood man who is looking for a meaningful, just connection in the world. These three films could not be more different from one another, from they way they look and feel to the themes they explore, but there they sit, each its own story and yet lazily lumped together, a sum of parts that is somehow more expressive of the shortcomings of labels and trends than any could be alone. I have no idea how history will remember this moment in American filmmaking, but I also don’t care; history will never capture the good feeling of living in the moment itself.
Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland